Month: January 2024

The Dwelling of the Alchemist

Larkas finally saw it through the thinning trees. The dilapidated structure looked like a tall barn, sitting lonely and incongruous among the boulders and snow drifts of Mount Runkhorn. As he stepped out of the woods, his whole body felt suddenly pierced by the bitter wind that the pines had been blocking. He gasped reflexively. The fatigue of a four-day trek up the mountainside seemed to have been stored up in that blast of frigid air. But even more, Larkas felt the weight of his own rage upon that wind, his need to end a nightmare, his hope to set things right. He fell to his knees and remained motionless for a long time, his limbs aching and his head swimming from the thin air and a gust of conflicting emotions. Eventually, Larkas hauled himself up and stumbled to the dark building, closing the distance that separated him from his dangerous purpose.

His numbed fist felt nothing as it pounded on the desiccated wooden door. After a short pause, the door creaked open a hand’s width. He peered through the narrow opening at the gaunt face of a powerful-looking man with no hair. The bald man held a thick candle whose flame flickered and went out as the wind swept over it. His glazed eyes slowly looked Larkas over, then fixed their dead stare on his face.

“I am here to see the Alchemist,” said Larkas, shivering.

The bald man’s emotionless face did not change.

“How you find?” he said with a heavy Berellian accent.

“Janth Myronokor,” said Larkas. “Don’t worry, he’s dead now. He won’t be revealing any more secrets.”

The bald man made no immediate response, continuing to stare at Larkas.

“Proof?” he said.

Larkas opened the leather satchel he had slung over his shoulder and removed a ruby-studded ring. He handed it to the bald man who examined it for no longer than a heartbeat before dropping it as if it were a worthless stone. Larkas bent down, picked up the ring, and returned it to his satchel.

“Alone?” said the bald man.

“For now. My associate will be arriving tomorrow with a large amount of Ælliri white gold. Not in trinkets or coins. In demi-bars. The Alchemist might be interested in knowing more about my business proposal.”

Silence followed. The bald man cocked his head to one side and seemed to be listening to something.

“I check,” he said.

Icy hands frisked Larkas thoroughly and rummaged through his satchel. Larkas had brought no weapon, knowing in advance how futile it would have been. When he had finished, the bald man pulled open the groaning door just wide enough for Larkas to enter, and stepped backwards into the building, keeping the door open.

“Come,” he said brusquely. “Stay.”

Larkas entered and the door was slammed shut behind them. In an instant, the drone of the howling wind became a distant groan and the pallid sunlight vanished. Larkas could see nothing, but heard the bald man shuffling away into the lightless interior. The air inside felt barely less cold than outside, but at least it was still. Then the perfume enveloped him.

In space, Larkas had taken a mere step forward, but his sense of smell had been transported to an entirely new realm. He took a deep breath, inhaling the odors of a wild mélange, intermingling to create some hitherto unknown innovation. His nostrils flared at the sensation. The aromas seemed to undulate and vibrate, deepening almost to the point of becoming edible and then dissipating to a mere suggestion. Larkas knew immediately that he was in the presence of a skill that transcended the limits of mere science. The Alchemist was truly an artist.

Twenty paces across the darkened space, a vertical slice of light appeared as another creaking door opened, only to disappear again an instant later. The bald man was gone. Larkas sat on the ground, his weariness overcoming any sense of decorum, and waited for nearly half an hour in total darkness, all the while however, enchanted by the mosaic of fragrances.

Finally, the far door opened again and someone stepped into the doorframe. The figure’s enormous girth blocked the light behind it like the moon Creska eclipsing the sun. Even from across the room and in the dim lighting, Larkas saw that the newcomer was a head taller than him and twice as wide. The corpulent figure stepped back into the room, then returned holding an exquisite silver candelabra, its myriad branches thick as a full-grown tree’s and each topped with a burning candle.

The figure glided forward with unexpected litheness, its massive weight belying an almost dainty step. In the light of the candelabra, Larkas could clearly see the features of a man. His skin was pale and seemed delicate as if made of the finest porcelain. Although his wavy hair appeared wild and unkempt at first, Larkas saw that it had been styled into place by some grease or oil whose luscious scent emanated from him as strongly as the light from his candelabra. Fat lips jutted out of his almost spherical head and his beady eyes lay hidden in deep, fleshy recesses. The man wore a fortune in jewelry and Wallon silk clothing, most notably two chains of Ælliri white gold. Larkas’s wager on that point had been correct. He prayed that the rest of his conjectures and surmises about the Alchemist proved likewise.

But more than any other detail, Larkas noticed the Aura, a barely visible but unmistakable shimmer that swirled around the man like the waves of heat rising off a distant desert horizon. The Imperial interdiction against the Magician Guild’s use of the Aura spell had been one of the key provisions to establish an armistice between the Empire and the Guild seven years ago. The Alchemist’s flagrant and notorious refusal to present himself to Guild authorities and have his Aura spell revoked rendered him in violation of both Imperial law and Guild precept. In the criminal circles that had dealings with the man, such recalcitrance only enhanced his reputation.

Larkas had never before seen anyone imbued with the Aura spell. Descriptions of it had not prepared him for the electric sense of power that it radiated. It would indeed prove to be a difficulty, Larkas thought to himself. But if he knew one thing about the Magician’s Art, it was that no spell was invincible.

“You have killed Janth Myronokor,” said the Alchemist.

His voice was quiet and raspy, and his stare pierced through Larkas as if attempting to read his very soul. Larkas shook his head.

“I did not say that. I said that he was dead. I never claimed he was killed at all, and certainly not that I had killed him.”

The Alchemist considered this, his gaze not lessening its penetration, but altering in a subtle way that Larkas could not interpret.

“But you did kill him,” he said flatly.

“You can see that about me?”

Bulbous lips curved on one side to form a grin.

“You might say, I can smell it.”

The Gift That Keeps On Taking

My boyfriend is a ghost. He haunts my apartment on Avenue D in Alphabet City, what gentrifiers call the up-and-coming part of the East Village. Every morning he lingers in the kitchen and makes me coffee, whether I want it or not. On my way to the bathroom, I find my lucky tiger mug filled and steaming by the microwave, or he brings it to the bed, where I am drifting awake amid the rumpled sheets. Since I’ve been with him, sitting up takes all my will. Even after a full night’s sleep, my limbs are heavy, too weary to move.

He speaks and I imagine I can feel his warm breath. I move in closer, offering my lips to his, and when we touch, I drink, gulping at his heart. His kisses are deeply passionate. He crawls into my mouth; then he sinks into my body and I never know where I end and where he begins.

If I am honest, there is an aftertaste, a whiff of something sour, spoiled, leaking from his insides. I fold away that niggling thought like a Kleenex in a jacket pocket, forgotten but ready for a future moment. Instead, I choose to remind myself that his kisses are why I stay with him. But not even I know what is true anymore.

I first saw him while I was working at a trendy night spot called the Drowned Lotus, using the name Mystery. It was one of those ultra-private, themed hostess clubs with a discreet townhouse exterior, like a worm hidden inside the big fat apple. The best title to describe my job was “modern geisha.” The fact that none of the hostesses except Kimiko were Japanese didn’t much matter to the clientele.

Descending into the miasma of cigarette smoke and perfume, I was armed for social warfare in my stormy violet kimono, the one all the men admired. It was iridescent and shimmery like the wings of a dragonfly. My face, well hidden under a thick glaze of alabaster powder: smudged charcoal eyes, sticky glitter on my demon-red pout. I was there to charm, to serve, to entertain with my useless conversation as I coaxed egos by way of erections, accepting tips with my practiced, mysterious smile.

Twice a night, management made all us girls gather in a single-file line of platform geta and daddy issues. The tuxedoed band would blow its boozy horns and tickle the drums as we paraded across the stage for our moment in the spotlight. The emcee’s cloudy whispers brushed the microphone as he introduced us by false name after false name. We shuffled in a spectacular display, ready to be picked like juicy lemons in a market stall —all of us keenly aware that if we were the sweeter kind of fruit, we wouldn’t be working in a place like this.

Handsome, with a gentle smile, he pointed at me, my soon-to-be boyfriend. When I approached, he asked my name. I flirted by leaning forward hands resting coquettishly on my knees.

“Does it matter?”

“It does to me.”

“Then it’s whatever you want it to be.” He opened his thighs giving me enough room to dance. My fake eyelashes brushed my cheeks as I waxed and waned behind my hand-painted silk fans. I must have looked odd, wiggling in front of an empty chair, but both girls and customers shrugged, since it was not the strangest request they’d seen fulfilled.

I went home with him that night to his tiny apartment around the corner, and we lay together on his mattress until the stars were washed away by the rainy morning. He caressed my cheek and, in a whisper, recited, “Twice or thrice had I lov’d thee, before I knew thy face or name.”

John Donne, I murmured, recalling the name from my uncompleted college days. Instead of sinking into slumber, I should have recollected the verse properly. Then I’d have remembered: the next few lines of the poem made me “some lovely glorious nothing.”

My grandmother said it is a gift to have enough empathy to see the dead. She never spoke of the difficulty in telling the difference. When we started dating, I wrongly believed he had a pulse. He fooled me with the easy throbbing beat as his firm chest clasped against my back. Addicted to his sweet honey sweat, our tongues intertwined and I imagine that for the first time I found a new home.

He talks about his past and I can see him get smaller, shrinking into a frightened little boy with dark hair and maudlin eyes of gold and green, a leprechaun’s dream. Reduced to a fetal state, he descends into an uneven sleep, rocked awake by discarded memories. I curl around his tiny form each steamy summer night as he makes a shallow, wrinkled depression in the icy sheets.

When morning breaks, he is again grown, a milky figure that my hand cannot quite pass through. I ask where his body is. He looks at me thoughtfully and with a half-smile that deepens the dimples in his cheeks, assures me it’s somewhere safe.

After about a month, he presented me with my own set of keys. The grumpy Albanian landlord found me living there, and I took over the lease. Rent for the apartment was turn-of-the-century low, since he couldn’t keep a tenant because of the opening and closing of the refrigerator door and the angry scrubbing whenever dirty dishes were abandoned in the sink.

I unpacked my clothes and my new boyfriend told me that they didn’t suit my body. The ones he did not throw away, I placed in the one closet we shared. I took the right side and he pushed his things to the left.

A locked chest shoved toward the back crowded most of the closet space. It was large enough to fit a small child inside. I knelt to examine it more closely. My fingers traced his name intricately carved on the side, T-R-I-S-T-A-N. My hands moved to the brass latch. He appeared, sitting on the top as if he had enough weight to keep it closed, the clothes on hangers a makeshift movie screen for the projection of his face. His eyes smiled though his mouth did not. I felt like a child caught with candy in my mouth.

He said his father made it for him when he was young, and he would rather I didn’t pry. Come on, I teased, no secrets. The lock frosted over instantly, sticking as I impatiently tried to free the contents. The cold was a shock to my tender skin, and a thin layer ripped free to leave my fingertips raw and exposed. Not once did the flat expression leave his eyes. Some things, he said, are not to be shared. To neatly avoid the prickly beginnings of our first disagreement, I wholeheartedly agreed.

The God In the Bottle

In my defense, I hated my job, but it’s not that I didn’t like the perks. I made my own hours, didn’t punch a clock, and didn’t have to answer to a boss. Yes, most of my clients were scary people, but there was no one I had to be scared of—which couldn’t be said for the guy sitting across from me.

Though Jerry Franck was pushing fifty, he had arms and shoulders like a piece of wrecking equipment. Nevertheless, there were sweat marks on his shirt, and he hadn’t taken a sip from the glass our waitress had set in front of him.

To my left, Aldous Finn was the model of a pencil-thin accountant, but that was only to those who didn’t know him. To me, he looked like a hatchet. Finn was the numbers man for the local syndicate, and Franck was just the owner of a nearby hardware store. There I was, the fulcrum between them, and I already knew which way it would tilt. In the silence, I bit into a slice of the house supreme.

“We don’t mean disrespect,” said Mr. Franck. “The other tenants and I would simply like to talk about our payment schedule.”

Finn’s question had been, “Are you fuckin’ unionizing on me?” I considered Franck’s response.

“Technically true,” I said. “He wants to be respectful, and payments are on his mind.”

“But?” said Finn.

“He didn’t answer the question.”

“We ain’t unionizing,” Franck said. “We had a meeting, that’s all. We’re not arguing about the protection, but we feel we ought to negotiate. In good faith.”

I nodded while chewing. “Also true.” But my scalp itched. “Except for that last part.”

“Really. Have you been talking to someone, Mr. Franck?”

He stiffened. “I’d rather not say.”

I took another bite, thinking, Don’t dig yourself deeper. Pleading the Fifth rarely worked with the Mob.

“Another family,” said Finn, “or the cops?”

Jerry froze. His eyes twitched my way. I shook my head and reminded myself that this moron had dug his own grave.

“Make it two questions,” I said.

“Another syndicate?” said Finn.

Jerry didn’t blink.

“The cops?”

Only an Inquisitor could have noticed the tiny flinch.

“Bingo,” I said, and reached for my beer.

“I see,” said Finn. “Mr. Franck, why don’t you tell your associates that I’ll bring this matter up with my employers, and to expect a resolution real soon.”

Franck shook, and I wondered if he’d brought a gun. I knew damn well that Finn’s partners at the next table were armed. That’s why I always held these Q&A sessions in crowded restaurants. I put down my drink, looked away from Mr. Franck, and waited for the moment to pass.

“You can go now,” said Finn. Once Mr. Franck had left the booth, Finn set an envelope next to my plate. “Y’know, Sid, I wish you’d come over full time. Be easier than this freelance shit.”

“Pass. But thanks for the pizza.”

“De nada.”

I took another bite instead of watching Finn leave. My teeth were still buried in the crust when the restaurant’s lights turned red. Looking back at the room, everyone had frozen, and the door to the street glowed green.


Not for the first time, I wished I could hold my breath and pretend to be human. Gangsters I could handle, but I fucking hated gods.

Between one moment and the next, a god stood in front of my table. He’d squeezed himself into the form of a man wearing a gray business suit.

“I am Wealth. Don’t pretend not to worship me. Your presence is commanded by the Highest.”

Always knowing when people were lying made life among humans a headache, but being around gods was even worse. Everything they said was true by definition. Even when they tried to lie, their words carried such force that the world would break to accommodate them. When a god as powerful as Wealth called, it was more than a half-breed like me could resist.

“Whatever you say, Chief,” I told him.

He pointed at the door, and I stepped outside to a world cloaked in haze. The only light was a glow across the street, where a demon dressed as a chauffeur stood next to a limo so wide that the alley had stretched to make room. When I slid into the back seat, the inside was utterly dark. Or rather, it felt like my eyes had been turned off.

“This is he.” The voice came from everywhere, including my bones. If spoken by a human, the words would have been a question. Gods didn’t ask questions.

“Yes, Lord,” said a woman whose words buzzed the air. “Sidney Mépris. The portents are clear.”

The darkness faded, revealing the limo’s interior to be the size of a small boardroom. On my right, Wealth radiated disdain. Across from him, a fox-haired goddess lounged in a loose, silver pantsuit.

The god in the middle inhabited his seat like a throne. Every inch of him gleamed as if sculpted from onyx. Rings shone like starlight on both of his hands. Without hesitation, I knelt and bowed my head.


“I Am,” said the god. “You are the misbegotten spawn of a lesser deity, but as with all things you have a purpose. Your moment of use has arrived.”

Yay, me. The weight of Lordship’s presence was so strong that it was all I could do not to prostrate myself.

“My sister will instruct you in the task you are to perform,” he said. “Once you discharge your duty, the meaning of your life will be fulfilled. After, you may live the remainder of your days howsoever you please. I care not.”

I waited, unmoving, my knees like cement. I didn’t think I’d be able to move without a direct command. It finally came from the goddess on my left.

“This is where you say, ‘Yes, Lordship. Thank you, Lordship.’”

“Yes, Lordship. Thank you, Lordship.”

I lifted my eyes. Lordship and Wealth were gone. Only the other remained.

“Have a seat,” she said. “You’ll want a drink.”

“Hell, yes,” I said, slumping into the seat. “Jack and Coke, hold the Coke.”

She grinned. A glass appeared in my hand as if it had always been there.

“My brother isn’t a people person. I’ll try to be less portentous.”

I sipped the whiskey. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Call me Insight. You’re Scorn’s boy. I know her, though I wouldn’t call us friends.”

“Few would.”

“Agreed.” She kept smiling. “This job is nothing you can’t handle, but it is important. An Epoch is ending and another is set to begin. When this happens, certain rites must be performed to ensure a smooth transition. This time there’s a problem. One god is refusing to take part in the ritual.”

“Why doesn’t Lordship command him?”

“Would that he could. No, our prodigal has sealed himself into a personal retreat that no other god may enter. A human might, but a human couldn’t convey Lordship’s orders. One of our blood, however…”

I laughed. “Jesus. You want me to break into a god’s hideout and serve a summons.”

Insight darkened. I’d learned to swear by imaginary deities mainly to piss off my mom. In this instance, I might have pushed my luck. The goddess went on.

“The signs indicate that of all our offspring, you have the best chance of overcoming the temptations our brother will place in your path. Once you reach him, you’ll deliver Lordship’s command that he attend the ceremony.” She handed me a seal of red wax. “This contains the power of Lordship’s Word. When you deliver his message, break the seal and our brother will obey.”

I turned it over in my hand. The seal bore an emblem that my mind refused to register. In its place, another question rose up.

“Temptations? Who are you sending me after?”

Insight smirked.

“Your uncle Revelry. I’m sure you’ll have loads of fun.”

Therapy is Now in Beta

As Lawrence Yu approached, a smiling face appeared on the door, and a cheery voice said, “By placing your palm to the pad, you consent to the recording of all communication both verbal and non-verbal.”

If he refused, the school would call his dad. Lawrence glanced at his watch: 11:15. Dad might still be undergoing pain-relief treatment or else he was trying to sleep through the post-treatment nausea. Lawrence would have to at least go in and pretend to listen to the thing inside.

He consented, and the door opened into a small room where two chairs faced each other. One was empty. The counsel-bot sat in the other, wearing a nondescript, gray tunic. A face as plain as the tunic stared at the ground between the chairs. On its hairless head, a faded, red-ink stamp read BETA UNIT.

The counsel-bot began speaking while raising its head. “Welcome to therapy, Lawrence.” It glanced at a pad in its hand—a choreographed motion to thwart the creep factor of too much eye contact. “You’re nearing the end of your time at East Lansing Middle School, and this is your first offense,” the bot said. “Can you tell me about what happened today?”

The tone was calm, inviting, fake. Principal Andrews insisted that the counsel-bot was under the direct remote control of a human counselor who could juggle multiple middle schools in a day, but none of the students believed that. It was only a bundle of elaborate chat scripting. Being forced to talk to a machine about his problems made Lawrence want to kick the bot off its chair.

Instead, he tightened his grip on his chair’s arms and stared the bot down.

The wan smile on its face relaxed. As it did, a micro-expression created dimples on its chin in the same way his mother’s did.

The bot tapped her pad. “It says here that you poured water on a teachers-aid-bot until it short-circuited.”

He had to say something to meet the minimum engagement threshold. “Accident,” Lawrence said.

“Might have been,” said the bot. “But on Monday you ‘accidentally’ kicked a janitor-bot down the stairs. And on Wednesday, the principal found a hall-monitor-bot in pieces on the steps, two stories below an open window.” The bot drummed her fingers on her leg. “I have limited access to your family records, so I can see that your dad recently lost his employment.”

Lawrence squeezed his thumbs inside his fists until they cracked.

She glanced at his hands. “When an adult loses their job, they often become sad or angry. They may say or do things that—”

Blood rushed to Lawrence’s face, and with it came panic, shock, and rage. “He’s a great dad! But I guess your records don’t tell you that, do they?”

The bot leaned back. “Tell me about him,” she said.

“When my sister turned 15, he took her on a suborbital to Shanghai, where he grew up. They ate soup dumplings and went to the Science and Technology Museum. Does that sound abusive to you?”

“No, it doesn’t. I see that your 15th birthday is next week. Do you have a similar trip planned?”

“My dad…” Lawrence closed his eyes and wished his voice wasn’t so shaky. “My dad was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. He’s already missing his mouth with the dinner fork. In a few months, he won’t know who I am. There aren’t any trips to Shanghai in my future.” Lawrence pointed at the bot. “And before you load up a script on grief, I’m pretty sure this is all too complicated for your programming to handle so… we’re done.” He kicked the chair on his way out of the room.

The Man Who Borrowed My Clock

Of course, I can remember when it happened! I recall the whole thing like it were yesterday. And not a mere three hours previous.

It had been one minute to twelve. I recall pulling the beauty from its velvet-lined box, to check it tallied with the one hanging on the wrought iron pole standing proudly in the street. And of course, it did. It was a Mills IV. Hardly ever needed winding, just a little oil every fourth month of the year. Ran like a gazelle, so it did.

Then he came right up to me, brave as you like. “Excuse me, young man, do you have the time?” Even now, I recall every little detail, the excessive hair in his nose, the greying of his right eyebrow.

I proffered my clock forward on my palm. “One minute to twelve, sir. Do you not have the time yourself?” It was an innocent enough question, from a young man barely out of school. Everyone carried their personal timepiece, it was unthinkable not to do so. Unless…

No! I put that kind of thought out of my mind right away. He looked like a stand-up kind of fellow in his maroon knickerbockers, the type who would happily front his round at the bar, when it came to his turn to buy.

He smiled at me. “Is that a Mills/Watson, young lad?”

I shook my head. “No, sir. That’s a common mistake most people make, on account of the similarly styled carriage, it’s a Mills IV. The finest timepiece they made at that particular factory. Gifted to me on the day of my birth by my ailing grandfather, may the gods rest his eternal soul.”

He raised an admiring eyebrow, the greying one, as I recall. “I’ve heard tell that was the lightest movement they ever made. Is that true?”

I held the clock out at arm’s length. It barely weighed anything in my hand. “I could stand like this for an hour, sir, or more. Nothing built since has come close to the Mills IV. It’s an honor to own one.”

“A greater honor to even see one, young man. Might a fellow be so bold as to ask to try her weight, just the once?” Then he held out his hand. Such a simple request, from a well-dressed man. How could he possibly be one of—them? The clockless. Those without the time.

I placed the Mills on his palm, he lifted and dropped his hand a few times, clearly enjoying the sensation of its lightness. Then he did the unthinkable. He turned and fled without any notice or warning. He high-tailed it down the street, taking my beloved Mills IV with him.

I was shocked and devastated in equal measure. So shocked that I didn’t even think to give chase, or cry out for a Timekeeper. Then I heard the clanging of hand-bells approaching. “Time check! Have your clocks at the ready!”

I knew I couldn’t be found clockless, no matter how that situation had come about. So I quickly set off in the opposite direction, heading away from the Timekeepers.